Don’t Believe the Anti-Incumbent Narrative

by Stuart Rothenberg April 20, 2012 · 9:54 AM EDT

Though it probably won’t start for a few more days, the “anti-incumbent election” narrative will grow loud during the next few weeks, as a handful of Members of Congress find themselves in tough races. It won’t matter whether they are defeated in primaries or just squeeze through in tight, nasty contests. And it won’t matter that the narrative is wrong. Be prepared.

Yes, Congress is unpopular, but that is not why the handful of incumbents who lose primaries will come up short.

On Tuesday, 10-term Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Holden may well lose to opponent Matt Cartwright, a Scranton attorney who attended the 1992 Democratic National Convention as a Bill Clinton delegate.

Cartwright’s website says he has spent his life fighting “against corporations, insurance companies, big banks and corporate greed,” so it probably isn’t surprising that he is attacking Holden from the left, accusing him of lacking core Democratic values.

The Scranton lawyer is a member of the American Association for Justice, a benevolent-sounding group that was previously known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a not-so-benevolent-sounding group.

Holden’s status as an incumbent isn’t an unadulterated asset, of course. But Congress’ reputation is not why Holden is in serious trouble, according to multiple sources and surveys.

When Pennsylvania’s GOP legislators redrew the state’s Congressional map, they changed Holden’s district radically. For the past decade, it has been a relatively compact district in southeast/south-central Pennsylvania that includes cities and towns such as Harrisburg, Hershey, Pottsville and Tamaqua.

The new, oddly shaped 17th district still includes Schuylkill County, Holden’s base, but it stretches up to northeast Pennsylvania, grabbing cities such as Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and taking in plenty of Democrats who have never heard of Holden.

About 80 percent of the redrawn district is new to Holden. He could never have been defeated in his old district, and he probably could never have been nominated in a district shaped the way the new one is.

A few weeks after that primary, on May 8, Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar will either lose to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock or squeeze by him in the GOP primary.

Lugar’s problems, however, have nothing to do with the “anti-incumbent” mood or Congress’ poor reputation. Instead, they have everything to do with his record and his horrible campaign.

Lugar’s record and style don’t fit comfortably with where his party now is, yet he made little or no effort to sooth conservatives or to prepare for a battle. If he had, he might, for example, have purchased a house or condo in the state so that he wouldn’t need to stay in a hotel when he returns to the state to campaign.

More than a year ago, I wrote in this space about Lugar’s vulnerability in a possible one-on-one primary. Almost immediately, I received a call from a Lugar staffer telling me how wrong I was and pointing out that the Senator was hugely popular and had a large campaign war chest.

In other words, Lugar’s team didn’t understand what could happen if voters were presented with a credible opponent who either had money or would be supported by outside groups willing to spend heavily to defeat the Senator. And later, the campaign didn’t understand why anyone would care that Lugar didn’t own a residence in the state.

While Lugar invited a difficult primary by antagonizing conservatives, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) did the opposite. After then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was denied renomination last cycle, Hatch prepared for the worst-case re-election scenario. He put together a strong political team, including veteran strategist Dave Hansen, who first talked to me about Hatch’s plans shortly after the 2010 elections.

Hatch has drawn a credible foe for the state nominating convention this Saturday in former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, and a June primary is possible. But the six-term Senator, who was elected the same year as Lugar (1976), is much better positioned to be his party’s nominee than Bennett was or Lugar is.

There are other primaries, of course, that could raise eyebrows and will be cited as evidence that voters want to throw out everyone in Congress.

Indiana Rep. Larry Bucshon faces a rematch against Kristi Risk, a tea party “constitutionalist” who finished just 4 points behind him in the 2010 open-seat GOP primary, and in Pennsylvania, five-term Rep. Tim Murphy (R) is being challenged in his primary by evangelical Evan Feinberg, a conservative who describes Murphy as a “liberal” in a campaign TV spot. Feinberg has the support of FreedomWorks and of GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), for whom he worked.

The challenges to Republican incumbents Bucshon and Murphy (and to Michigan Rep. Fred Upton) are overwhelmingly ideological, not anti-incumbent.

Elsewhere, in Tennessee, freshman Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who won the 2010 open-seat GOP primary with only 30 percent of the vote, faces two very strong opponents and has never represented almost a third of the redrawn district, including one county where a strong challenger comes from. And in California, Rep. Joe Baca (D) faces a primary battle against state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod in a district that is about 40 percent new to Baca.

The challenges to Fleischmann are based primarily on his inherent weakness and vulnerability, and to a lesser extent on the new district’s geography, while Baca’s problem primarily is geographic.

And some incumbents will lose because they have been forced into primaries against other incumbents by redistricting. While their defeats are irrelevant to the “anti-incumbent” argument, their numbers are likely to be included by those trying to push the narrative.